Born: 22 October, 1943, in southern California. Died: 28 September, 2015, in Ashland, Oregon, aged 71.
Catherine Coulson was an American actor, camera operator and assistant director who spent most of her career behind the lens, having been one of the earliest female camera operators to work in Hollywood. She was most notable for her collaborations with the cult film director David Lynch. On his debut feature, the surrealist horror Eraserhead (1977), she was assistant director, a crucial accomplice in bringing Lynch’s early vision to fruition; the film starred her then-husband Jack Nance. Yet it was her major onscreen role for Lynch, that of eccentric clairvoyant the Log Lady in his television series Twin Peaks (1990-91), which brought her to the enduring attention of a cult audience around the world.
Even in the canon of strangeness and oddity that fills the career of Lynch, whose films also include The Elephant Man and Lost Highway, the Log Lady was a particularly enduring icon. Amidst Special Agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) ever-more-disturbing hunt for the disappeared homecoming queen Laura Palmer, the Log Lady – the character’s real name was Margaret Lanterman – would regularly appear and offer seer-like visions to Cooper and others.
The chosen medium for her precognition was the perfectly round piece of ponderosa pine she carried everywhere with her, cradled in her arms like a baby. She would speak to it as though confiding secrets to a child, and relate its supposed news with a well-meaning earnestness. An element of the show which caught viewers’ attention early in the run and contributed significantly to the sense of uncanny mystery which pervaded every scene, the Log Lady was a success entirely because of Coulson’s portrayal; she played the part homely and often to comic effect, but with the vaguest of sinister undertones which gave the character her edge.
The character had, in fact, been created by Lynch especially for Coulson a decade and a half earlier, while filming Eraserhead. He told her she would one day play a “log girl” for him in a series called I’ll Test My Log With Every Branch of Knowledge, in which she would visit professionals around the country so that she and her log could interview them. When the character, now grown into the Log Lady, eventually came to life on screen, it briefly became a phenomenon; Sesame Street parodied her, and Coulson presented a link in character at the 1990 Emmy Awards.
Born and raised in Southern California, Coulson’s mother was a ballet dancer and her father was a producer and public relations executive in television and radio. Classically trained in performance at the private liberal-arts women’s college Scripps College and at San Francisco State University, her first love was for the theatre, and it was to the stage that she returned in later life. While attempting to get somewhere with her acting, she took behind the scenes roles wherever she could, developing experience assisting with camera and direction.
In 1968, Coulson married Nance, an actor who had auditioned for the part played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. The pair taught acting at the American Film Institute, which is where Lynch came to know about them. Then an unknown studying filmmaking at AFI, he invited the couple over to his house to discuss Nance taking the lead role in the film. “We had a good chat,” Coulson told the website Alternative Nation. “Jack and I decided yeah, we’ll be a part of it, because he seemed like such a good guy, and he had a nice family.”
Cast in the smaller role of a nurse in the film, Coulson offered to help on set, and ended up assisting with sound and lighting, taking set photography and even creating iconic hairstyle Nance wore in the film; she also co-wrote and performed in Lynch’s 1974 short The Amputee. She and Nance had a tempestuous relationship, fuelled by his drinking. “We were married for eight years, half of which we spent on Eraserhead,” Coulson said in an interview, “and I think that became a distraction of sorts from the reality of what was going on in our personal lives. I truly loved that man, but alcoholism is a disease, and in the end the disease got in the way of our relationship.” Away from her work with Lynch, Coulson’s credits were varied and respectable. She worked in the camera department of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth (1991), and onscreen in the low-budget Colin Firth and Billy Zane vehicle Femme Fatale and Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor’s final film together Another You (both 1991).
In 1994 she moved to Oregon with her second husband Marc Sirinsky and daughter Zoey, and began an acting association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival which continued for the rest of her life, also performing on many other theatre stages. She occasionally returned to onscreen performance, for example in an episode of the hipster comedy Portlandia (2012).
In 1992 Coulson reprised the role of the Log Lady in Lynch’s full length Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me film, and was due to do so again in the director’s upcoming return to the series.
After her death from cancer at home in Oregon, Lynch said: “Today I lost one of my dearest friends, Catherine Coulson. Catherine was solid gold. She was always there for her friends – she was filled with love for all people – for her family – for her work. She was a tireless worker. She had a great sense of humour – she loved to laugh and make people laugh. She was a spiritual person - a longtime TM [transcendental meditation] meditator. She was the Log Lady.”